Android moves to replace Google Pay music app with YouTube Music

Google wants to make YouTube the default audio app on Android in the hope of boosting its chances of competing with Spotify.

Right now the default Android audio app is Google Play Music, which does try to get users to upgrade to Google’s subscription streaming service, but doesn’t do a very good job of it and is mainly used as the interface for accessing locally stored audio files. Rather than overhaul the way that upsell is managed Google has decided to merge it with the YouTube Music app.

Music videos are arguably the most popular type of content on YouTube, with the top 30 most viewed individual videos dominated by music. YouTube monetizes those via serving ads on the video, but it would rather people paid upfront to its premium subscription service, that offers ad-free playback, background play on mobile devices (without it the music disappears if you switch to another app) and even downloading.

YouTube premium has plenty of features, but Spotify is the incumbent streaming music service, so Google has to do something special to topple it. As politicians, regulators and anti-trust authorities around the world are increasingly sensitive to, in Android Google has an incredible powerful platform for upselling its other digital products and services and it seems to have decided YouTube Premium needs the power of Android to give it critical mass.

YouTube Music is your personal guide through the complete world of music—whether it’s a hot new song, hard to find gem, or an unmissable music video,” says the announcement, tellingly published on the YouTube blog. “Music fans on Android phones can now easily unlock the magic of YouTube Music, which will come installed on all new devices launching with Android 10 (and Android 9), including the Pixel series.”

The announcement also made it clear that Google Play Music will no longer be preinstalled, which seems like a precursor to it being replaced entirely. You can still access locally stored files through YouTube Music, but on first inspection the user interface is inferior to Google Play Music, so the company may face some push-back from users on that. We’ll leave you with the top 5 music videos ever on YouTube, bafflingly headed by the entirely mundane Despacito. Contrastingly Gangnam Style has lost none of its kitsch, tongue-in-cheek charm.

 

IBC 2019: Are the nuances of the content world being understood by telcos?

The traditional telco business model is being commoditised, this is not new news, but with more telcos seeking to drive value through content, do they understand the nuances of consumer behaviour?

Once again at IBC in Amsterdam, it is an OTT which is grabbing attention. This should come as little surprise considering the disruption which this fraternity is thrusting on the world of telecoms, media and technology, though here it is more than gratuitous. Cécile Frot-Coutaz, the head of YouTube’s EMEA business, outlined why these companies are leading the way; a fundamental and intrinsic understanding of today’s consumer and the consumer-driven market trends.

This is perhaps why the telcos and traditional media companies are struggling to adapt to a world dominated by millennials, generation Z and digital natives. They appreciate society is changing but have perhaps not correctly balanced the formula to fit cohesively and efficiently into the new paradigm.

This conundrum is most relevant in the content world. Telcos need to factor this complex and nuanced segment into the business model, but how, where, why and when is a tricky question. Many telcos want to do something completely new and very drastic, but the simplest ideas are often the best ones; how can connectivity be used to augment and enhance the fast-growing, fascinating, complicated and profitable content space?

From our perspective, telcos need to diversify, but the best way to do that is figure how connectivity can enhance growing businesses and segments. This might sound like an obvious statement, however the evidence is the nuances are being missed.

Take AT&T for example. This is a company which desperately wants to diversify to take advantage of the digital economy. One way in which it feels it can do this is through the acquisition of Time Warner, a $107 billion bet to own content, create a streaming platform and drive another avenue of engagement with the consumer. Sounds sensible enough, but why take such a risk when there are opportunities closer to home.

Another strategy is more evident in Europe where telcos are attempting to create partnerships with the streaming giants to embed the distribution of these services through their own platforms. See Sky’s integration of Netflix or Vodafone’s work with Amazon Prime. Again, it is a perfectly reasonable approach, but does this future-proof the business against the trends of tomorrow?

These are two approaches which will attract plaudits, but we would like to take the strategy closer to home once again.

During her presentation, Frot-Coutaz pointed to several trends which could define the content world of tomorrow, and it is a perfect opportunity for the telcos to add value.

Firstly, let’s have a look at the consumer of today and tomorrow. Millennials and Generation Z have fundamentally changed the way in which the media world operates, and content is consumed. Not only is it increasingly mobile-driven, but there are new channels emerging every single day. Technology is second-nature to these consumers, and this is shaping the world of tomorrow.

Another interesting point from Frot-Coutaz is the fragmentation of content. One of the objectives of YouTube is not only to own content channels, but to empower the increasing number of content creators who are emerging in the digital world. If the content creators make more money, so does YouTube.

Frot-Coutaz claims that the number of YouTube channels which generate more than $100,000 per annum has increased 30% from 2017 to 2018. These trends are highly likely to continue, further fragmenting the content landscape.

This is where owning content or embedding popular streaming services into platforms becomes problematic. Consumer trends suggest the variety of channels through which the user is consuming content is increasing not decreasing. Embedding Netflix into a platform is an attractive move, but it is only attractive to those who have an interest in Netflix. If connectivity solutions can be offered to consumers to simplify and enhance the consumption of content, agnostic of the platform, there is a catch-all opportunity.

Although Netflix and Amazon Prime might be the content platforms on everyone’s lips for the moment, the number of ways in which consumers engage content is gathering significant momentum. There are new challengers in the streaming world (Disney+ or Apple TV), traditional social media (Facebook or Twitter), challenger social media (Tik Tok) AVOD channels (YouTube), traditional conversational websites (Reddit), messaging platforms and who knows what else in the 5G era. What about the VR/AR platforms which could potentially emerge soon enough?

This is a nuance, not a drastic change in thinking, but it is an important one to understand. Do telcos want to be the owner of content, the distributor or the delivery model. Admittedly, the delivery model is not the sexiest in comparison, but it might hold the most value in the long-run.

Another way to think about this taking the example of Killing Eve, the BBC spy thriller. Is there more long-term value in the eyes of the consumer in owning the content, owning the distribution channel or owning the connectivity services which fuel consumption and engagement through all channels?

The best means of differentiation have always been the ones which are closest to home. If you look at the likes of Google, Microsoft and Amazon, these are future-proofed companies because they are taking their current services and creating contextual relevance. There might be examples which undermine this point, but the general claim holds strong.

At Google, the team diversified their business through the acquisition of Android. This evolution took Google from the PC screen and onto mobile, but it is an extension of the advertising business model in a different context. The same could be said about YouTube. A video platform is drastically different from a search engine, but the underlying business model is the same; identifying the needs of the consumer and serving relevant commercial content.

The telcos are looking to do the same thing, but perhaps there needs to be more of a focus on a proactive evolution of the business rather than reactive. The telcos are playing catch-up on the consumption of video through mobile and a shift to OTT distribution, but the current approach is perhaps too narrowly focused. Focusing on the core business of connectivity delivery is more of a catch-all approach, factoring in future trends and the increasingly fragmented digital society.

This is a very easy statement to make, the complications will be on creating products which encapsulate these trends and offer an opportunity for telcos to grow ARPU. We are sitting very comfortable in the commentary box here as opposed to in the trenches with the product development teams, but the nuances of content are there to be taken advantage of.

Is $170 million a big enough fine to stop Google privacy violations?

Another week has passed, and we have another story focusing on privacy violations at Google. This time it has cost the search giant $170 million, but is that anywhere near enough?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has announced yet another fine for Google, this time the YouTube video platform has been caught breaking privacy rules. An investigation found YouTube had been collecting and processing personal data of children, without seeking permission from the individuals or parents.

“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. “Yet when it came to complying with COPPA [the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act], the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”

Once again, a prominent member of the Silicon Valley society has been caught flaunting privacy laws. The ‘act now, seek permission later’ attitude of the internet giants is on show and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of these incredibly powerful and monstrously influential companies respecting laws or the privacy rights of users.

At some point, authorities are going to have to ask whether these companies will ever respect these rules on their own, or whether they have to be forced. If there is a carrot and stick approach, the stick has to be sharp, and we wonder whether it is anywhere near sharp enough. The question which we would like to pose here is whether $170 million is a large enough deterrent to ensure Google does something to respect the rules.

Privacy violations are nothing new when it comes to the internet. This is partly down to the fragrant attitude of those left in positions of responsibility, but also the inability for rule makers to keep pace with the eye-watering fast progress Silicon Valley is making.

In this example, rules have been introduced to hold Google accountable, however we do not believe the fine is anywhere near large enough to ensure action.

Taking 2018 revenues at Google, the $170 million fine represents 0.124% of the total revenues made across the year. Google made on average, $370 million per day, roughly $15 million per hour. It would take Google just over 11 hours and 20 minutes to pay off this fine.

Of course, what is worth taking into account is that these numbers are 12 months old. Looking at the most recent financial results, revenues increased 19% year-on-year for Q2 2019. Over the 91-day period ending June 30, Google made $38.9 billion, or $427 million a day, $17.8 million an hour. It would now take less than 10 hours to pay off the fine.

Fines are supposed to act as a deterrent, a call to action to avoid receiving another one. We question whether these numbers are relevant to Google and if the US should consider its own version of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

This is a course which would strike fear into the hearts of Silicon Valley’s leadership, as well as pretty much every other company which has any form of digital presence. It was hard work to become GDPR compliant, though it was necessary. Those who break the rules are now potentially exposed to a fine of €20 million or 3% of annual revenue. British Airways was recently fined £183 million for GDPR violations, a figure which represented 1.5% of total revenues due to co-operation from BA during the investigation and the fact it owned-up.

More importantly, European companies are now taking privacy, security and data protection very seriously, though the persistent presence of privacy violations in the US suggests a severe overhaul of the rules and punishments are required.

Of course, Google and YouTube have reacted to the news in the way you would imagine. The team has come, cap in hand, to explain the situation.

“We will also stop serving personalized ads on this content entirely, and some features will no longer be available on this type of content, like comments and notifications,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in a statement following the fine.

“In order to identify content made for kids, creators will be required to tell us when their content falls in this category, and we’ll also use machine learning to find videos that clearly target young audiences, for example those that have an emphasis on kids characters, themes, toys, or games.”

The appropriate changes have been made to privacy policies and the way in which ads are served to children, though amazingly, the blog post does not feature the words ‘sorry’, ‘apology’, ‘wrong’ or ‘inappropriate’. There is no admission of fault, simply a statement that suggests they will be compliant with the rules.

We wonder how long it will be before Google will be caught breaking privacy rules again. Of course, Google is not alone here, if you cast the net wider to include everyone from Silicon Valley, we suspect there will be another incident, investigation or fine to report on next week.

Privacy rules are not acting as a deterrent nowadays. These companies have simply grown too large for the fines imposed by agencies to have a material impact. We suspect Google made much more than $170 million through the adverts served to children over this period. If the fine does not exceed the benefit, will the guilty party stop? Of course not, Google is designed to make money not serve the world.

YouTube flexes its editorial muscles

As video sharing service YouTube strives to censor ever more rigorously, can it still be considered a neutral platform?

Social media platforms are exempt from many of the rules and regulations that govern the media because they don’t exercise editorial control over what is published on them. Every time they move to censor some types of content and favour others, however, that status comes into question.

Last week YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki published a blog titled Preserving openness through responsibility, in which she argued that it was vital for YouTube to be as open as possible and that the only way to guarantee that was to get rid of any content it doesn’t like. Wojcicki characterised this censorship as ‘responsibility’ and explained that it’s comprised of four other Rs that are explained in the graphic below.

YouTube Rs

Clearly proud of its removal efforts, YouTube wasted little time in blogging about its removal efforts. Featuring liberal use of conveniently nebulous and ill-defined terms such as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘problematic’ the blog details YouTube’s constant meddling with its own policies and the increasing vigour with which it enforces them by taking down content and kicking creators off the platform in the name of openness.

YouTube removal

Of course YouTube does have to exercise some control over its platform, for example the removal of illegal content. The problem for creators and YouTube’s own claims of openness is thatits policies extend far beyond preventing illegality, are arbitrary and are getting stricter by the day. Protecting its advertisers by demonetizing edgy content is one thing, but there has to be a point at which the imposition of a strict and comprehensive set of editorial parameters on its creators means YouTube can no longer be considered a platform and is thus legally responsible for every piece of content it publishes.

Google ditches subscription model for YouTube Original content

Google tried to make the transition over to a subscription-led business and now it seems it has had enough, announcing all YouTube Original content will be free after September 24.

Although the subscription business model is very attractive to the money-men, it was always going to be a tough sell for Google and YouTube. Not only have users become accustomed to free content through the platform, it is also far removed from the core competency of the Google money-making machine.

It now appears the experiment has not worked, with Google announcing all YouTube original content, movies and live events released on September 24th and beyond will be free to view.

There will of course be a subscription model still available for users. For $12 a month, ads will be removed, content can be downloaded for offline viewing, all episodes of a series will available from the beginning and users can expect bonus material also.

It doesn’t seem to be completely giving up on the idea of subscriptions, but this represents a more back the traditional from Google.

Google is very good at a number of different things, but top of the list is hyper-targeted advertising. Like Facebook, Google specialises in collecting and analysing information on a user before presenting the right type of content. Some might question the appropriateness and relevance of some of the ads, but you only have to look at how good the Google search engine actually is to realise it does know what it’s doing.

This is why the transition to subscription-based revenues on YouTube was a slightly unusual move. Firstly, Google is really good at making money through serving relevant ads at the right time, so why change this. And secondly, YouTube users are accustomed to getting content for free, why would they want to pay?

Perhaps this is why it has been a struggle to collect subscriptions to date. YouTube users are used to a certain experience, and maybe do not feel YouTube Original content warranted a price tag. Google was asking users to pay for content, without really owning a track record of creating price tag worth content.

This is not necessarily the end of the subscription ambitions for Google and YouTube, but it does impose a different mentality on the business. It takes the platform back into the realms of targeted advertising, a practice which has made Google billions upon billions, and also allows the team to broaden the audience.

Without a paywall to hide content behind, the YouTube Originals will be viewed by more people. More opinions can be nurtured and more of a reputation can be created. As it stands, Google or YouTube does not have a positive or negative reputation for making content. Eyeballs are important when going up against the likes of Netflix, HBO, Disney and Sky, and now Google can ensure people can form an opinion on its content.

If Google wants to transition YouTube across to a subscription-based business model, it will have to demonstrate why people should pay to access content. Perhaps it forgot to do that in the first place.

The UK is turning to VoD – Ofcom

Half of UK homes now subscribe to TV Streaming services, reveals a new Ofcom report, as the country increasingly opts for video-on-demand.

The precise proportion is 47%, which is lower than some might expect given the apparent ubiquity of Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc, but still a significant jump from 39% just a year earlier. Furthermore, since many people have more than one service, the total number of subscriptions increased by 25%. If this keeps up it won’t be long before nearly all of us spend our evenings consuming copious amounts of VoD.

This is the headline finding from Ofcom’s latest Media Nations Report, which takes a deep look at the country’s media consumption habits. Any parent won’t be at all surprised to hear that younger people far prefer on-demand video over traditional broadcast and, as a result, consumption of the latter is in rapid decline. Thanks to the oldies broadcast telly is still the most popular form of video consumption, but not for long.

ofcom media nation all video

ofcom media nation all video 16-34

ofcom media nation all video change

ofcom media nation all video change 16-34

“The way we watch TV is changing faster than ever before,” said Yih-Choung Teh, Strategy and Research Group Director at Ofcom. “In the space of seven years, streaming services have grown from nothing to reach nearly half of British homes. But traditional broadcasters still have a vital role to play, producing the kind of brilliant UK programmes that overseas tech giants struggle to match. We want to sustain that content for future generations, so we’re leading a nationwide debate on the future of public service broadcasting.”

The UK state seems to be in a mild panic about the decline in viewership of what it considers to be public service broadcasting, which means any old rubbish that’s publicly-funded. It’s highly debatable how much of the content produced by the BBC provides any kind of public service other than distracting us for a few minutes, but Ofcom seems to still think it’s really important.

This last table is especially illustrative of the current state of play, with younger adults all about YouTube and Netflix. If Ofcom had surveyed teenagers we suspect that bias would have been even more pronounced and as these trends continue the TV license fee is going to become increasingly hard to justify.

ofcom media nation all video minutes

YouTube creators unionize to combat demonetization and censorship

In its desperation to placate corporate advertisers YouTube has antagonized many of its independent creators, but now they’re fighting back.

YouTube has to strike a delicate balance between the needs of independent creators, who generate most of its traffic, and corporate advertisers, who provide most of its revenue. For the past couple of years, whenever an advertiser has complained about a type of content, YouTube has usually moved to ensure that content has no ads served on it – demonetization. Since a cut of ad revenue is often the sole source of income for the YouTuber, this can have devastating consequences.

More rarely YouTube will also censor entire videos or even ban certain creators from the platform entirely. Recently YouTube’s apparent decision to side with Vox journalist Carlos Maza in a dispute with YouTuber Stephen Crowder, and subsequently impose fresh censorship rules, led to further claims of bias against independent creators, despite its CEO’s claims to the contrary.

Now we have the news that an obscure ‘YouTubers union’ has joined forces with IG Metall – Germany an Europe’s largest industrial union, to form the campaigning group FairTube. This is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least because the digital world has seemed to have no place for trades unions until now.

FairTube has called for the following from YouTube and given it until 23 August to engage with it, or else.

  • Publish all categories and decision criteria that affect monetization and views of videos
  • Give clear explanations for individual decisions — for example, if a video is demonetized, which parts of the video violated which criteria in the Advertiser-Friendly Content Guidelines?
  • Give YouTubers a human contact person who is qualified and authorized to explain decisions that have negative consequences for YouTubers (and fix them if they are mistaken)
  • Let YouTubers contest decisions that have negative consequences
  • Create an independent mediation board for resolving disputes (here the Ombuds Office of the Crowdsourcing Code of Conduct can offer relevant lessons)
  • Formal participation of YouTubers in important decisions, for example through a YouTuber Advisory Board

Exactly what FairTube will do if YouTube doesn’t play ball is unclear. Traditional industrial action is unlikely as it’s hard to see how they could get YouTubers to down tools in sufficient numbers to have a significant effect on YouTube traffic. But in the latter half of the video below you can see that FairTube has three avenues it thinks it could pursue to escalate.

  1. Contesting the status of YouTube creators as self-employed, thus creating a greater duty of care on YouTube towards its creators.
  2. Claiming GDPR violations due to YouTube’s refusal to give creators the data it stores about them and which it does share with advertisers.
  3. Old fashioned collective action – not so much striking as spreading the word and joining the union to put collective pressure on YouTube and its own Google.

 

Unstated but baked into this last point is the growing regulatory and antitrust pressure being put on all internet platforms, not least by US president Donald Trump. Meanwhile the European Union, while having the turning circle of a supertanker, can impose some pretty severe sanctions when it gets its act together. We’ll leave you with YouTuber Tim Pool’s analysis of the move.

 

Battle lines drawn ahead of White House social media summit

US President Trump has invited a number of social media commentators to a discussion about the current digital environment.

This is being largely interpreted as an anecdotal investigation into the nature of social media censorship, with Trump having repeatedly raised his concerns on the matter. The major social media platforms don’t seem to have been invited, however, instead a selection of independent journalists, commentators and activists will be asked about their online experiences.

The White House hasn’t published a list of attendees, so here’s our own, in no particular order, derived from information already in the public domain. We’ve also included the number of Twitter followers each attendee has to provide some measure of their online influence. The summit takes place tomorrow.

  • Tim Pool – YouTube Journalist – 352k
  • James O’Keefe – Independent Journalist – 548k
  • Ben Garrison – Political Cartoonist – 176k
  • Charlie Kirk – Activist – 1.16m
  • Ali Alexander – Activist – 95k
  • Scott Presler – Activist – 226k
  • Bill Mitchell – Broadcaster – 445k
  • Carpe Donctum – Activist – 122k
  • PragerU – YouTube Commentator – 271k
  • Heritage Foundation – Think Tank – 649k
  • Media Research Center – Media Watchdog – 157k
  • Christian Ziegler – Activist – 3k

It has not gone unnoticed that nearly all of those invited are at the conservative end of the US political spectrum and Trump is known to be concerned that online censorship tends to affect conservatives disproportionately. It’s presumably not a coincidence that most of these conservatives also seem to be committed Trump supporters.

The presence of the two journalists at the top of the list indicates this will be more than just a Trump supporter love-in, however. “This event will bring together digital leaders for a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment,” a White House spokesperson is widely reported to have advised.

Pool has probably been chosen due to his high-profile grilling of Twitter on the Joe Rogan podcast, in which he argued some of its rules on speech it permits  are demonstrably biased against conservatives. Similarly O’Keefe’s organisation Project Veritas has recently claimed to have exposed similar political bias at Google.

So it seems clear that at least one of the primary purposes of this summit is to enable the US government to gather evidence of bias in social media censorship. Earlier this year the White House opened a web form inviting people to submit such evidence, so it’s possible this will have influenced who was invited too.

While much commentary has focused on the perceived political agenda of this summit, the absence of not only the big tech companies but big media too indicates another angle. There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that social media censorship is increasingly biased against independent commentators and thus in favour of corporate, institutional, establishment voices.

Leftist independent commentator David Pakman has alleged in the video below that the YouTube recommendation algorithm has been changed in order to favour corporate over independent media. Most of the independents he cites are also leftist, indicating this isn’t a predominantly political move.

 

It is well documented that YouTube has been anxious about the effect of some of its more contentious contributors on revenues for some time and has implemented broad censorship in an apparent attempt to appease big advertisers. If there is bias in the recommendation algorithm in favour of corporate media it’s probably because advertisers also favour them, but every piece of arbitrary censorship seems to create as many problems as it solves.

Meanwhile, Twitter is where Trump spends much of his time and so is probably the platform he scrutinises most closely. A US appeals court recently ruled that it’s unconstitutional for Trump to block people on Twitter, but this precedent had led to other US politicians who have blocked people on Twitter being sued. Elsewhere Twitter’s recent decision to ban any comment that ‘dehumanizes others on the basis of religion’ seems destined to raise questions about selective enforcement.

Not to be out-done Facebook recently updated its policy regarding ‘violence and incitement’ with the guidance shown in the screenshot below.

Facebook policy screen

This seems to say that it’s OK to advocate high-severity violence (un-defined) against anyone Facebook considers to be a ‘dangerous individual’ or anyone said to be a violent criminal or sexual predator. Since Facebook explicitly identified several individuals as dangerous recently, some of those people have understandably interpreted this move as hostile to them.

That there is a growing body of evidence of a deeply flawed approach by social media companies to policing their platforms is undeniable. To what extent this involves political bias remains unclear, but Trump seems to think it does and, with the next US general election imminent, he seems increasingly disposed to bring the full force of the state against any tech companies deemed to be acting against the public, and his, interest. Those companies will doubtless be following this summit with interest.

We’ll leave you with Pool’s take on the whole thing.

 

YouTube CEO’s struggle session was futile

In her first public statements since last week’s censorship controversy YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki attempted to strike a balance between freedom of speech and censorship.

As a quick reminder: one YouTube user claimed to be the subject of homophobic harassment by another user and wanted them censored accordingly. YouTube initially said none of its policies had been violated but on further reflection decided to demonetize (stop serving ads, which are the primary source of revenue for YouTubers) the channel of the accused.

At a live event hosted by Recode – a tech site owned by Vox, which also employs the above complainant, Carlos Maza – Wojcicki insisted on making a public apology to ‘the LGBTQ community’ before answering any questions. This was presumably in response to critics from within that group of the decisions made, of which Maza himself remains one of the most persistent.

Wojcicki moved on to recap what had taken place, which consisted of two distinct but parallel events. The first was the announcement of measures YouTube is taking against ‘hate speech’, which had apparently been in the pipeline for a while. The second was Maza’s allegations and demands, which YouTube addressed separately.

For two such separate issues, however, there seemed to be a fair bit of overlap. Firstly it was revealed that YouTube had pre-briefed the media about the hate speech announcement, raising the possibility that Maza was aware of it when he made his allegations on Twitter. Secondly the decision to demonetize the offending channel coincided precisely with outcry at the original decision that none of its policies had been transgressed, despite that decision having apparently taken 5 days to make.

In the context of hate speech Wojcicki also mentioned that laws addressing it vary widely from country to country. This highlighted one of the central dilemmas faced by internet platforms, that they’re increasingly expected to police speech beyond the boundaries of legality. Their attempts to do so lie at the core of the impossible position that they’re now in.

The interviewer expressed sympathy about the impossibilities of censoring an open platform at such scale and Wojcicki could only say that YouTube is constantly striving to improve and pointed to recent pieces of censorship as proof that it’s doing so. She pushed back at the suggestion that YouTube moderate every upload before publication, saying a lot of voices would be lost. She pointed instead to the tiered model that allows for things like demonetization of contentious content.

This model was also used in defence of another couple of specific cases flagged up by the interviewer. The first concerned a recent cover story on the New York Times, the headline of which spoke of one YouTube user who found himself brainwashed by the ‘far-right’ as a result of recommendations from YouTube, but the substance of which indicated the opposite. Wojcicki said another tool they use is reducing the recommendations towards contentious content in order to make it harder to find.

The other case was of a US 14-year-old YouTuber called Soph, who recently got one of her videos taken down due to some of its content, but whose channel remains. The utter futility of trying to assess and potentially censor every piece of content uploaded to the platform was raised once more and, not for the first time, Wojcicki attempted to steer the conversation to the 99% of content on YouTube that is entirely benign.

Carlos Maza responded to the interview with the following tweet, inspired by a question from the audience querying the sincerity of Wojcicki’s apology to the LGBTQ community, to which she responded that she is really sincere. Maza’s tweet indicates he won’t be happy until anything perceived as harassment of ‘queer’ people is censored from YouTube.

You can see the full interview below. As well as the prioritised apology, this did seem like a good-faith attempt by Wojcicki to openly address the many complexities and contradictions faced by any censor. It seems very unlikely that her critics will have been swayed by her talk of nuance and context, however, and there is little evidence that this interview solved anything. Still, at least she gave it a go and if nothing else it will have been good practice for the many other such struggle sessions Wojcicki will doubtless have to endure in future.

 

YouTube squirms under the contradictions of its censorship

Having initially taken a position in favour of freedom of speech, YouTube has now lurched towards censorship following public pressure.

Yesterday we told you about the matter of Vox journalist Carlos Maza versus YouTuber Steven Crowder. Crowder had frequently made mocking reference to Maza’s sexual orientation in videos he made to rebut Maza’s own videos. Maza felt this was homophobic harassment and called on YouTube to censor Crowder’s channel on the platform.

YouTube initially responded by saying that, while it didn’t endorse Crowder’s actions, they didn’t violate any of its policies and so he wouldn’t be punished. Maza was unhappy about this and made his feelings clear on Twitter. The decision quickly turned into a PR nightmare for YouTube, with most mainstream media reporting the decision as YouTube ‘tolerating’ homophobic content.

This precipitated a major rethink by YouTube, which published a couple of blog posts apparently designed to appease the many critics of its initial decision. The first was headlined ‘Our ongoing work to tackle hate’, which addressed the difficulties of policing so-called ‘hate speech’ on the platform.

“Today, we’re taking another step in our hate speech policy by specifically prohibiting videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status,” announced the post. It also said YouTube is stepping up its efforts to limit the availability of stuff that doesn’t violate its policies, but is still deemed dodgy by its own arbitrary judgment.

While that post didn’t specifically address the Maza/Crowder situation, YouTube’s second one, Taking a harder look at harassment, did and tried to tackle the free speech dilemma at hand. “If we were to take all potentially offensive content down, we’d be losing valuable speech — speech that allows people everywhere to raise their voices, tell their stories, question those in power, and participate in the critical cultural and political conversations of our day,” said the post.

Inevitably, however, YouTube found itself in the position of effectively saying ‘we’re totally in favour of free speech but…’ as all exponents of selective censorship eventually do. “Even if a creator’s content doesn’t violate our community guidelines, we will take a look at the broader context and impact, and if their behavior is egregious and harms the broader community, we may take action,” the post continued.

“In the case of Crowder’s channel, a thorough review over the weekend found that individually, the flagged videos did not violate our Community Guidelines. However, in the subsequent days, we saw the widespread harm to the YouTube community resulting from the ongoing pattern of egregious behavior, took a deeper look, and made the decision to suspend monetization. In order to be considered for reinstatement, all relevant issues with the channel need to be addressed, including any videos that violate our policies, as well as things like offensive merchandise.”

That last paragraph appears to be a clear attempt to appease its critics, but for those hoping to see Crowder kicked off YouTube, as has happened to many other ‘egregious’ content producers, merely demonetizing the channel was not enough. Maza once more took to Twitter to make his dissatisfaction clear in no uncertain terms. Crowder, meanwhile, invited Vox to subscribe to his channel.

From those two blog posts it does seem like YouTube is genuinely trying to find the optimal point of censorship that will satisfy both Maza and Crowder but this is, of course, impossible. Censorship, by definition, involves the imposition of a set of rules and values on other people who may not agree with them. When you also find yourself in the middle of a culture war it’s probably impossible to please anyone, let alone everyone.

One of the challenges of using nebulous neologisms like ‘hate speech’ is that they’re very difficult to define. YouTube attempted to do so in its first post by talking about discrimination against people on the basis of a number of characteristics. Unstated, but always implicit, in such policies is that enforcement is usually one directional – i.e. not all characteristics are subject to protection from ‘hate speech’ – which often leads to claims of bias against those not protected.

More broadly, as soon as a censor acts against a type of speech it then comes under pressure to apply that sanction to each and every other instance of that type under its jurisdiction even-handedly. If it doesn’t then it’s reasonable to conclude there is some bias built into the process, which will displease those who consider themselves adversely affected by it.

Another major issue social media censorship raises is the status of services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. They are currently legally positioned at ‘platforms’ which means they’re not responsible for the content they host. As they increasingly act in an editorial capacity, however, there is a good argument that they should be reclassified as publishers, which would fundamentally undermine their whole model.

As we wrote yesterday, those calling for censorship should be careful what they wish for since it could one day be applied to them. Maza wants Crowder to be censored for harassing him, but himself recently called for the harassment of people whose politics he disapproves of. Under these new rules should he not be punished too?

We will leave you, appropriately enough, with a couple of YouTube clips. The first features Crowder discussing the matter with independent journalist Tim Pool, who is sympathetic to him but is more interested in exploring some of the broader issues this case highlights. The second is an excerpt from a recent podcast published by Joe Rogan, in which he and leftist commentator David Pakman wrestle with the complexities of the matter. Both illustrate the impossible position YouTube has put itself in by acting as a censor.